Tea and Sea Otters: A Poet’s Cottage

Sometimes my ‘house karma’ amazes even me.

Seated at the mosaic-tiled bistro table on the flagstone terrace in front of the cottage, a pot of afternoon English tea and a small dish of almonds and dried Turkish figs before me, I gazed through the stand of shapely Monterey cypresses to the blue-grey sea beyond. What I first mistook for one of the bulbous, drifting heads of kelp (called pneumatocysts) bobbing and strewn abundantly among the greenish brown ribbons in the cove’s waters, suddenly flipped over with a small splash and disappeared with a wave of two broad, flat, furred feet. In a moment the California sea otter reappeared and rolled onto its back, floating with the gentle waves.

sea otter
California sea otter

A delighted smile on my face, I sat and observed the furry, adorable mammal as it floated near some long, surface strands of kelp, repeatedly flipping over and diving, then resurfacing shortly and rolling over to continue back floating. Watching the otter in the aquamarine waves, I felt my own body become soft and expansive, breathing deep and full in the briny air as respiratory and nervous systems entrained unconsciously with the ocean’s rolling rhythm.

Tea… and sea otters. How fabulous.

Watching these creatures (along with harbor seals, pelicans, and dolphins) while seated on the terrace in front of my newly acquired rental—or gazing through the large picture window at the front of the cottage, or even the small kitchen portal—seems almost a ridiculous amount of grace. Insanely good. Since arriving here, there have been more than a few times in the past few days that I have simply needed to pinch myself, just to be sure that I hadn’t somehow stumbled or drifted back into the Dreamtime.

After months of long distance searching and a frustrating process of trying to locate something decent to rent in a tight, expensive market where almost nothing is available, to have ended up in a historic poet’s cottage on an oceanfront estate in the Carmel Highlands, well, it is about as amazing good fortune as it gets.

It was a dear friend of mine who said, “You have the most astounding ‘house karma’ of anyone I know.”

As I said, sometimes it amazes even me—and I have lived in some pretty charming, fantastic places.

A couple of weeks ago, before I departed Hawaii, in a SAJ post titled “Betwixt and Between”, I shared a bit of my search for a new pied à terre here in Carmel on California’s central coast. I predicted that there would be a leap of faith, but trusted that the right place would manifest for me. It always does. I swear that I have some contract with the Universe that assures I’ll have an appealing place to live so that I can do my creative work in the world. The seemingly agreed upon pad is rarely posh but nearly always has charm, a sense of nature at the door or nearby, and a good sense of privacy—all of which I find indispensable.

As a Taurus artist whose home is his castle, deeply attuned to surroundings and sense of place, having the right house is essential for my work and wellbeing. It’s a soul thing. Many, many times I have passed over houses that were decent, practical or affordable because they simply did not feel right to me. In the very few cases where my residence was less than ideal for some reason (i.e. a crazy landlady, or a soulless ‘sick’ house in the Honolulu suburbs), it always turned out to be just a temporary spot that served as a bridge to the next, far better house that was waiting.

I have learned—still learning!—that the Mystery has a much wiser sense of timing and generosity than my own impatient, ego-centered agenda.

Usually that ‘right’ place is found at the end of the road (which is sometimes a dirt track), somewhere tranquil and rural. In fact, so often has this been the case that my partner and I have half-joked that should I ever write a memoir, it will be titled “A House at the End of the Road.” When people visiting in these various locations ask me, “how did you find this place?” I shrug with a smile. “I didn’t. It found me.”

I’m not trying to be glib or clever. Honestly, I don’t go looking for a place where the pavement ends, one that borders green fields, a darkly tangled wood, or silver green groves of olives on the Mediterranean. Yet it has reached the stage that nowadays when I go to visit a possible residence, if when I arrive I find it sits at the end of a road, I’m fairly certain I’m going to end up there—no matter the odds or competition. Uncanny. And fabulous.

This time, my dwelling is not simply at the end of a private road but on a rocky point at the edge of a continent—a misty, alluring threshold of land, sea and sky. To go any further, I’d need fins or wings.

Admittedly, even for my ‘inner debutante’ it’s a bit odd to be hemmed in by California mansions whose prices range from 4 to 12 million dollars. When my landlady bought this property twenty years ago, only a couple of modest houses stood here on the cove, but in the years since then they have all been torn down and replaced by massive, soulless homes behind gates, most of which seem to sit empty. Thankfully my little cottage—a miniature Swiss chalet—is pleasantly soulful, full of artistic details, slightly down-at-heel, and very Old World. And gazing out the window, all I see are gracefully windswept cypress trees, a garden of native succulents that thrive in this cove, a rocky inlet of the Pacific, a floating patchwork quilt of kelp and waves… and sea otters.

As predicted, there was a leap of faith involved to land here, along with some unexpected twists and shifts in the guiding current; and because my friends’ guest room was booked with other guests, I spent four nights in a couple of motels in Monterey before the door opened to Cypress Cottage, as I call it. Despite a few moments of constriction and angst, I trusted that the door would swing ajar and welcome me in.

When I first viewed the property, somewhat on a whim because I was expecting to rent a different, less expensive studio in the Highlands (but oddly had to wait a few days to see it again), I was instantly enamored… and torn. After an hour and a half visit, as I stood gazing wistfully at the cove and cottage, I told the landlady, “It’s more than I can spend, given what we pay for our house in Hawaii.” Two days later, the morning after the owners of the other studio informed me that their place would not be available after all, she reached out to me with a reduced offer that included not only the utilities but also installing a washer and dryer, which the cottage currently lacks.

Knock me over with a brown pelican feather.

I was not the only applicant but ‘BG’—a delightful Iranian woman in the second half of life, a scientist/teacher turned printmaker—felt that I was ‘right’ for the place. So much so that she lowered the price for me. Later, sitting together in front of the cottage, she said that from the beginning she had sensed my deep love of the cypress trees and the ‘energy’ of the property; also she appreciated my barefoot connection with the earth and rocks, and all the little native plants and flowers growing everywhere. She noted the clear inspiration I felt being here. The little chalet was originally built for the wife of the property’s original owner and builder, as a place for her to write poetry and pursue her art; in the long years since, a couple of other writers have resided here. BG said she felt the little house was ‘right’ for me, and that she would enjoy sharing the gardens and grounds together… fellow artists in love with a special place.

Everything is relationship.

The north cove

The past week has found me sitting outdoors at the old, rusting bistro table, writing and drinking tea, watching the waters in the south cove not fifty yards distant—my breath and entire being in somatic resonance with the rolling silver-blue swells. In the evenings, I walk down with a glass of wine to the little bench at the end of the drive, and gaze out over the north cove towards Bird Island and Point Lobos State Reserve, watching silky, mottled harbor seals on the jagged rocks not twelve yards offshore. Or the occasional otter splashing amid the kelp. In no small state of awe and wonder, I am listening. Feeling. Sensing. Expanding.

In my own quiet way, observing the otters, seals, seabirds and stands of swaying kelp in the blue green waters, I am beginning an apprenticeship to motion and movement. I am becoming familiar with tides, along with shifting moods of light and weather—and fog trailing like spirits through the windswept trees, swirling around the bones of this little cottage. Too, I am developing a different relationship with my own breath, lulled into entrainment with the rolling inspiration of the ocean itself. I feel the familiar rigidity in my own body softening, yielding. The modern world holds nearly all of us in a state of ongoing activation, of ‘fight or flight’ in our overstimulated nervous systems. Yet how can anyone even halfway ‘embodied’ remain rigid or ‘activated’ who lives at the sea?

Surely this is a healing place… reminding the breath and bones how to live in a softer, gentler, more fluid and forgiving way.

Mornings and evenings find me bundled up in a favorite (if decidedly shrunken) Irish wool sweater from Connemara that I never get to wear in Hawaii. This cool and misty coastline offers a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of the islands, though I expect that in the grips of a damp, grey winter I will be glad for a return to warmer climes. Mostly though, I want to be here. Certainly I miss my human beloved and my two dear English Whippets while I am here working, but I cannot deny the sense of alignment and being home in my own skin that I feel in this soulscape of untamed earth, surging sea, and wide arc of ever shifting sky. I feel a sense of ease and grace, an effortlessness, as if all the doors are opening wide.

Each morning I am up before the dawn, standing outdoors in the salty air commingled with the slightly lemony exhale of the Monterey cypresses—a synergy of pure aromatherapy—a scarf wrapped round my neck, barefoot, and welcoming the arrival of day with a poem, prayers, and intentions. Like dusk, it is the moment when night and day join as lovers, two opposites becoming one, when the wordless, joyful Song of the World can be heard by those with open senses and an unshuttered heart.

A stick of smoldering piñon pine incense fills the cottage with a smoky, resinous, timeless scent. The first lines of a story are already coming through, trailing through my pen onto the waiting blank page in veins of charcoal-colored ink. What will emerge, I wonder?

Change and motion, like the shifting tides, is the only constant.

In a few months, when The Bones and Breath is on bookshop stands and I am in the world in a different way, my life will probably look decidedly different; for now, I have the luxurious gift of time. To that end, I am reveling in silence and quietude, a sense of retreat and sanctuary, along with new, creative work. As is always my want, I am living deliberately, attending to the profound need to be fully present to the details of my simple, handcrafted life. In an ongoing communion, I offer the gift of my attention to those I encounter—cypress, otter, seal, gull, heron, poppy, stone—in one of the most stunningly beautiful places on earth, steeped in a strong brew of gratitude.

At countless points throughout the day, I look out (or up) to see a thousand lacy green branches waving slightly in the maritime breeze. Gulls cry as they wing through the cove and little birds twitter amongst the entwined evergreen branches. I am scattering handfuls of golden, organic millet on stone walkways and gravel paths, enticing the little winged wild ones to draw near.

In the evening, the cottage aglow with the warming light of candles in the windows and placed upon the hearth of the rock fireplace, I create a simple, fresh, warming supper in my small ship’s galley kitchen. Savoring the night’s creation with a glass of well-crafted wine, I sit in the window alcove and gaze out upon the descending, enfolding darkness while listening to some soft music. A bit of reading, some emails, then curling up to dream beneath the outstretched, shapely boughs of a great Monterey cypress. Listening to crickets and the voices of the sea.

Soul Artists know that grace unfolds in unexpected, undreamed of ways. One of our key lessons in life is to stop limiting what we believe is possible. There is far more going on—in multiple realms of reality—than we can possibly imagine. Deep forces are at work and play in our lives, even in periods of upheaval and chaos, loss, betrayal, grief, and seeming inertia. It is only we who limit the goodness that can flow into our lives… or refuse to see it. Soul Artists seek to emerge from rigid patterns that no longer serve their expansion and evolution as conscious beings. They know that leaps of faith will always involve stepping from the familiar ledge, but they learn—and trust—that the net always appears. Or wings.

When we practice ‘sacred reciprocity’, the Universe always responds in kind to our gifts of beauty and gratitude.

Gentle reader, you don’t need to live in a quaint cottage at the sea to appreciate the goodness and beauty in your own life. Similarly, you needn’t quit your day job or become an artist. You do, however, have to begin to see the world with an artist’s eyes. A lover’s gaze. We are never separate or apart from our surroundings; rather we are a part of them. The beauty of a struggling weed in the crack of a sidewalk is as worthy of admiration and wonder as a coastal madrone tree; the little brown bird on your fence as much a marvel as the sleek falcon that swoops on agile wings.

I ask, what is the leap of faith that stands before you right now? Where in body, mind, or spirit are you feeling particularly rigid, when perhaps you could be more fluid and flexible? Whether a well rooted cypress or a floating sea otter, surely we can learn something from the other’s inherent gifts and grace.